American workers are adjusting to the idea of invasions of privacy by their bosses. With drugs, embezzlement and other offenses becoming a fact of life in the workplace, employers are turning to drug tests and extensive background checks to make sure the people they hire are clean.
But some staffers at the State Department have been threatened with a new brand of shakedown -- a "Rolodex" search to make sure they are hobnobbing with the right people.
The potential for a search of the desk-top telephone directories was announced at the Agency for International Development. That is the division of the State Department that handles U.S. assistance to Third World countries. The agency has offices around the world.
Top State Department officials think AID employees spend too much time schmoozing with foreign government officials and not enough time schmoozing with private business people. AID has set a goal of getting the private sector more involved in creating jobs in financially strapped nations.
So a cable went out recently from a top AID official to the various missions. It urged employees to start spending more time with bankers, business people, investors and manufacturers. That's good advice.
But one disgruntled recipient of the orders figured AID went too far when it suggested that the proof of a productive staffer was in his or her Rolodex and that big brother might be thumbing through the cards to see if AID workers were taking the advice.
That staffer sent us the cable with this note: "What it will mean is that people will go to the local Yellow Pages and spend an inordinate amount of time preparing Rolodex cards. Is it any wonder the U.S. government doesn't function well?"
An AID spokesman told our associate Scott Sleek that the cable was sent "tongue in cheek." But the memo doesn't read that way and apparently not everyone got the joke.
Here are some excerpts: "Of all the maxims about organizational life, perhaps none is as telling as the notion that your real job is revealed by your Rolodex. We know that you have succeeded when your whole staff can pass the 'Rolodex test.' As I visit the missions in the year ahead I will be talking with you and your staff about how the process is moving. Might just take a glance at your Rolodexes."
If the cable was a joke, it was a long one -- nearly a full page of fine-print instructions about making better connections in the private sector. The giveaway was the warning about hanging out with the same old crowd, or "patterns of internal circular transactions."
That phrase alone -- written as only a humorless bureaucrat could write it -- betrays the memo as legitimate.
The cable was signed by Secretary of State James A. Baker III, but the AID spokesman could not confirm whether Baker actually wrote it. Many of the AID instructions go out under Baker's name, but are really messages from his underlings to their underlings.